Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Leaves Are Falling by Lucy Beckett

Ignatius Press has been getting better and better at publishing great novels in the past year. They kindly offered me a copy of this book for review, and as you can tell these are all my honest opinions.

I've read many books where the atrocities and destruction of the Second World War has featured prominently, what is more rare is to find a book that deals with the aftermath of surviving such horrors, the loss of one's family, and even the loss of one's country and culture. The Leaves Are Falling by Lucy Beckett is a story of a boy's survival, the grace he experienced after the war and also the story of his father who comes to grips with the essentials of humanity while imprisoned.

The book begins with Josef Halpern, a Jewish man living in modern day London who calls upon a writer to hear and tell his story of survival through the war in Eastern Poland. He has lived into his eighties but has never related to any one person the entirety of his sufferings and how he tried to recover and begin again in England after being rescued by the British. The magnitude of what he has survived is magnified by the fact that so few understand or are even willing to hear the complexities of his experience of the War.

His story is told by the writer and focuses upon his first years in Britain, adapting to a new way of life and freedom in light of living with the burden of tragedy. Beckett poignantly tells this story through subtle yet thoughtful prose, although the horrors are described honestly the writing itself is not violent but seems to be filled with a deep respect and reverence for the lives of all those who were killed. I think many readers will find this refreshing like I did, as many writers often seem to allow the violence to overpower the story and characters of novels which take place during this era.

The story then shifts as Josef asks the writer to put the story of his father to paper. The writer describes Josef's father Jacob in a Soviet prison after his entire Polish reserve regiment is captured in 1940. Jacob spends his time in prison being forced to contemplate what faith, God, and where the capacity for freedom resides means to him and humanity as his Soviet captures are bent on driving out any faith or belief in the prisoners. Jacob was a non-religious Jew before the war, but experiencing the total lack of freedom shines a light as to how inherent faith and freedom are to each other. He never loses his dignity because of this knowledge, even up to the end as a victim of the massacre in the forest of Katyn where 22,000 Polish prisoners were killed, and which the Soviets blamed on the Nazis.

The breadth of knowledge Beckett gives throughout this book is impressive. The politics, philosophies, cultural and religious realities at the time are all explored deeply and thoughtfully. The complicated history of Eastern Europe during the twentieth century and how much it suffered at the hands of Nazism and Communism cannot be underestimated but is so little discussed in our contemporary study of history, let alone popular historical fiction. The only criticism I hold with this book is that at times the narrative relies too heavily upon dialogue, long conversations that are needed to explore the complexities of that time, but weigh down the prose.

I would recommend this novel to anyone with an interest in Eastern Europe or good historical fiction. It leaves the reader with a renewed respect not only for all those who lived and died in those horrific conditions of war, but for the survivors who were left with deep, lasting scars. The Leaves Are Falling is a well crafted, well researched novel that explores not only the truths of a horrible time in human history, but the spiritual realities that effect our hearts and souls.

Joining Jessica for What We're Reading Wednesday, make sure to visit for other great reads!  

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